Germans hog sun loungers, French tourists are snobs, Americans are loud, and the English apologise too much. Sorry, but it’s true – according to national stereotypes that is.
Humans have been stamping geography-based labels on fellow Earth-dwellers since the dawn of time. At best, national stereotypes are comical, and at worst, plain racist. So how did we earn these long-standing reputations and are they fair? How long have Britons been apologising so profusely? Which German began colonising sun loungers?
Telegraph Travel conducted an evaluation on the matter by addressing the experts and interrogating foreigners on their labels.
Back to the start
The question as to where certain national stereotypes first emerged is a difficult one. But as natural pattern-seekers, we’re quick to propagate them, says behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings. A Briton in Paris, for example, may likely ignore the unremarkable behaviour of the majority of the French, but be jubilantly alert to the first Parisian they encounter who happens to possess the slightest superiority complex.
As for British tourists abroad, do we subconsciously play up to our national stereotypes to fit the mould – and do other nationalities do the same?
“When we are away, these traits get polarised and magnified,” Hemmings states. “Britons might be more polite than usual, for example. We’re out of our day-to-day comfort zone and it’s self-soothing to behave as we would at home.”
When it comes to our negative national stereotypes, however, some of us go the opposite way and play them down, argues Jane Nadel-Klein, professor of anthropology at Trinity College, Connecticut: “When I [an American] am in Britain, I tend to speak more softly, knowing that Brits tend to 'hear' Americans as loud, and not wanting to confirm that stereotype. And when I return home after doing fieldwork, having been immersed in local British culture, I find American voices loud – for a few days, that is, when I'm probably just as loud as everyone else.”
Addressing expats, is it possible to lose one’s “Britishness” over time as we evolve from tourists to inhabitants?
Anecdotally, yes. When I, this writer, moved to New York for a few years, I clung desperately to my English vocabulary (“lift, pavement, rubbish”) in a stubborn bid to preserve my national pride. But after a while it proved impractical, no-one ever knowing what I was talking about, so eventually, “elevator, sidewalk, trash” it became. Upon my return to the UK, incidentally, my fellow Britons told me with some disdain that my intonation had changed, and asked why I’d suddenly become so intolerant of the slow service in pubs.
So perhaps there’s something to all this, and we’re on the money when it comes to national stereotypes.
Last year, a French waiter working in Canada made headlines after he was fired for being "aggressive, rude and disrespectful", but insisted there was nothing wrong with his manner – he was just being “French”. Guillaume Rey, who worked at a Vancouver restaurant on Canada's Pacific coast, filed a complaint with British Columbia's Human Rights Tribunal against his former employer, claiming to be the victim of "discrimination against my culture".
So aware are French authorities of the country's reputation for rudeness, that in 2015 the tourist board launched a multimillion-euro drive to improve their “difficult relationship with service and by extension our relation to others”.
In 2013, the Paris tourist board distributed a “politeness manual” for service industry workers. Three years earlier, the city paid “smile ambassadors” to be friendly to tourists at the city’s main attractions – to little avail.
We spoke to French writer Julie Santarelli, who said: “I think we probably aren’t as good as the Britons at making fun of ourselves, so it might come across as arrogance. I would also say the French can be a bit more impatient with people who don’t master their language.” So far, in line.
Telegraph Travel’s France-based destination expert Anthony Peregrine, elaborated: “Mature French holidaymakers give the impression that, as they travel, they are marking everything out of 20. Which they are. They don't eat in restaurants or visit exhibitions: they ‘test’ them, as a cursory glance at the French pages of TripAdvisor underlines.”
Germany is, according to its largest travel association, the Deutscher ReiseVerband, the “world’s travel champions”. Apparently, they spend more on foreign travel than any other nation bar China and the US – a neat €65bn (£56.9bn) a year – and collectively take more than 70 million holidays.
And what are they best known for among Britons? Waking up extremely early to declare ownership of the hotel sun loungers, usually by placing their towels on them. This is something that even Germans themselves acknowledge. In 2005, Ralf Höcker, a German solicitor, admitted that “the stereotype is true - German people do reserve all the loungers.” We asked German freelance writer Sonj Klug and she backed this up, adding: “Germans do all their holidaying with a lot of discipline.” Andrew Eames, the man behind the website germanyiswunderbar.com, notes: “They take their holidays very seriously. In fact, they take them so seriously it is hard to tell if they are actually having fun.”
But there’s a flipside to this, according to Telegraph Travel’s consumer champion Gill Charlton, who for years ran a B&B in Cornwall and thus had the chance to observe many a German holidaymaker at close quarters. “They speak good English, never complain about the weather, take their shoes off to go upstairs, and have a holiday action plan that usually involves a lot of walking and drinking British beer (always in moderation),” she says. “Apart from the odd moan if there’s no ham and cheese on the breakfast table, they are ‘model guests’, though they can lack a certain levity and sense of humour.”
“They’re not big advance-planners, or early risers,” writes our Italy destination expert Lee Marshall. “Social animals, they tend to move in groups, and will interact with locals wherever they go, in functional pidgin English, while remaining utterly themselves. Their one big moan is always the food.”
Is this true, we ask writer Elizabeth Heath, who is based there? “I do know of some Italians who will travel to other European cities, find the Italian restaurant closest to their hotel, and eat all their meals there,” she says.
They’re nothing if not upbeat, the Americans, particularly when they’re on holiday. Indeed, according to a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, US citizens are far more lively and optimistic when asked if they’re having “a particularly good day” than those in other developed nations including the UK, Germany, France, and Japan.
The Telegraph's very own London-based family, education and careers editor Sally Peck is an American, so she would know. “They are list-tickers,” she writes. “With less holiday time than Europeans, they’re a people on a mission, and they don’t want to waste time. Like Britons, their stabs at the local language will be unintelligible stabs in the heart of any purist. But it's an A for enthusiasm.
“As travellers, they’re also fairly big on respect, of the loud and proud Aretha Franklin variety – as tourists, they’re not there to occupy, they’ve come to learn and engage. And to call you sir. Even if you have no title.”
“The Japanese are not only distinct for their group photo-loving antics, they have also acquired a reputation for being among the world’s most well-dressed, tidy, punctual and polite of travellers,” says our Japan expert Danielle Demetriou, based in Tokyo.
“They behave impeccably, if a little restrained. They will queue politely, tip with precision and never turn up late, raise their voices or try to sneakily take a photograph in a gallery when they know they’re not allowed.”
In addition to ticking off a meticulously curated list of the famous sights, the Japanese tourists tend to be particularly fond of shopping, Demetriou further notes.
“Beaches are often fairly low on the agenda, although if a visit is required, they are easily spottable as they tend to cover head-to-toe in UV protective clothing.”
Now this is a tricky one, given there are two distinct and paradoxical strains to the British tourist stereotype. We’re either a bunch of crass, heathen barbarians, or we’re very civilised, acutely polite and overly apologetic, depending on where we are and who you talk you. On European summer holidays, we’re more likely to be regarded by foreigners as being the former; while Americans, for whatever reason, usually assume we’re the latter.
“Stereotypes of the English have often contradicted each other,” wrote David Bell, in the London Review of Books, in 2000. “The island race has been seen as alternately lazy and industrious, honest and hypocritical, polite and uncouth, taciturn and bombastic.”
History has in part dictated these swings, he notes: “Between 1650 and 1850, England changed from a predominantly rural, isolated, heavily religious country dominated by the aristocracy, into a quasi-democratic, increasingly urban and secular industrial society, and the centre of a worldwide empire.”
Of course, this is true of any national stereotype. But let’s not get too carried away. Wind the clock back to 1998, and to one of the first ever forays into the “reality TV” genre: Channel 4’s Tourist Trap.
In what was billed by its producers as a "large-scale psychological experiment to observe human behaviour and test out notions of national stereotypes", four nationalities (American, British, German, and Japanese) were invited for a week at a Turkish hotel, then secretly filmed while being subjected to set-up disasters that made Fawlty Towers look like the Ritz – staff burning national flags, drunk bus drivers, boats breaking down mid-river, and the like. Only it didn't work.
Despite the producers’ (and actors’) best attempts, the narrator was forced to admit: "The problem with this experiment is it really seems to depend on the individuals . . . not their nationality."
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